Everything is going great and then it happens as it happens to everyone who has sworn themselves to being professionally creative: you have to write about something you don’t know the first thing about. The assignment is so far out of your groove it may as well be “five hundred words about how recent changes in maritime tax law affects particle physicists’ opinions about 16th century Spanish royalty.” There are a few options available to you to handle this. You can:
- Phone it in like a ninth grade Great Gatsby essay (“Merriam-Webster defines ‘change’ as…”)
- Evade by running away in a serpentine pattern as to avoid capture
- Wait—stop running!
- You have to do it
Writing about a subject you know nothing about is a great way to make your brain feel like it has transformed itself into an empty void in which no thoughts can form except one and it’s just a tumbleweed blowing through an expansive nothing for-ev-er—but there are ways to combat ex nihilo project despair. Keep reading, I have all the answers.
But I don’t wanna!
The internet is a vast tome that contains the accumulation of essentially all current human knowledge. There are experts on everything like it’s a heist movie character introduction montage; but instead of like, Chuck Breaker: Demolition it’s a voiceover coolly saying Internet People: Basically Everything. The issue of course, is finding the thing you need in the half billion websites about alien “conspiracy” theories, dream journal blogs, and you don’t even want to know what else.
You probably know how to research on the internet, but these are two of my favorite strategies for trudging through the infinite terror of having to write about something that is so unclear that not even a starting point can be discerned.
All the lids for all the pots
Quora is my favorite for new subject research because it’s full of people asking all the questions I don’t know the answers to either on almost every subject imaginable. By browsing relevant categories, you not only get a lot of general information, you also gain insight that can guide how to approach further research. In ways as varied as understanding the general surrounding landscape or even learning to Google, for instance, “vertical stabilizer” instead of just “weird thing on top of back of airplane???”
Unraveling the threads
Skim every single linked source reference you come across in any tangentially related article when lost in your internet research k-hole. I honestly mean truly every link. Read every linked sources on the Wikipedia article. Crash your computer from so many tabs being open. There is no end to this riddle.
Befriending the enemy
OK, so there is an end. It is when you think even a little of it is interesting. Once you’ve reigned everything in enough to really understand how to direct your research and even have a few more complicated questions of your own about it, you probably are ready to go. A perfect understanding everything is not what you are trying to find through trawling the internet because you would be done about ten years past your deadline. The purpose of research is not only to familiarize yourself with the subject, it’s also to find any inspiration, no matter how tenuous, which can—even in the absence of precise details and a perfect understanding—carry you through the project.
Writing the wrong
While it is possible you do truly know nothing about what you have to write about…
… it’s not really the point. As overwhelming as it can be to feel like you are having to contribute to a conversation that you’re fundamentally wrong for and couldn’t possibly add value to, it’s important to really take stock of the ways you could be the right person for the gig.
Here is the great thing: your contribution to the conversation does not have to be expertise. There are already experts and they are holding it down: writing thousand page books about earthworm lifecycles, variances in Pacific Northwest algae, how wind patterns affected ancient pyramid construction, and every other thing under, over, inside, and around the sun. That’s not you, that is not your responsibility, you do not have to be that voice.
Don’t be weird
The most difficult part of writing effectively in a new arena is finding the appropriate tone and voice. Writing on an unwieldy and unfamiliar subject can make you feel like you have to serious-ify how you approach everything. Suddenly you’ll be changing the typeface to something serif-y and use words like ‘henceforth’ but this is like when you wear formal clothes and then (…from henceforth…) spend all night sitting with a bizarre, theatrically refined posture and talking about white wine notes. Resist the urge to try to obscure your lack of expertise with bulky, robotic definitions and overwrought explanations – it’s not making the content more believable and everyone just thinks you are being kind of weird.
Seriously, just be yourself
You have got your own thing going on, but you really need to identify what that Thing is and roll with it. Are you good at simplifying big concepts? Making things relatable? Really selling it and making dreary subjects sound more interesting they are? Don’t try to feign authority because you think it’s necessary – it’s not. Be concise, be correct, and add value to readers in whichever way you are most capable.
Listen, I know that writing about 10 Little Known Ways to Use Aromatherapy Oils or Tax Laws That Affect Your Glasses Repair Business can sometimes feel like writing into the void in disappearing ink with a pen that is made out of snakes and you can’t stop screaming. It’s true, most of the time we’d probably all rather be riding a rollercoaster than writing about Stress Relievers for Medium-Sized Iguanas. But it’s impossible to ignore the reality that there are reasons why it’s good—even really great—to tackle something that is not in your wheelhouse.
You’ll be more versatile
There’s a lot to be said for having a niche, but if you only do what you’re good at, it’s the only thing you’ll ever be good at. Repetition can be useful—where would metronomes, weightlifting, or dog training be without it?—but too much and you’ve got tennis elbow of the brain or like, Steven Segal’s career.
Over-relying on only one skillset can be pretty dangerous. Nevermind extolling the virtues of trying new things and becoming a more versatile and dynamic writer, falling back onto the same trick is total personal development quicksand. Easy to fall in and hard to get out. It will paint you into a corner even worse than the one time I casually mentioned I like raccoons and suddenly it was the only thing anyone knew about me. You’ll get tired of only being able to do one kind of writing and only being trusted for one type of assignment as much as I am tired of this raccoon-related novelty gift prison that I must live in.
You’ll know more stuff
In addition to exposing you to facts and ideas you might potentially be interested in, taking on varied assignments about all types of topics will equip you with knowledge that will help you in all kinds of situations. Like destroying everyone at trivia. Your unbridled breadth of knowledge will make you so irritatingly good at Trivial Pursuits that it might actually ruin family gatherings for all of your cousins. “You’re such a know-it-all,” everyone will say, but don’t worry, just say the Jeopardy questions louder so they can hear them even after they leave the room. I guess learning might be good for other reasons too though. Probably. Maybe?
Your work might help somebody else
Aww, well isn’t this a reward in and of itself!
Where do we go from here?
Like a cat that refuses to be held, a difficult assignment can seem deliberately obstinate in its refusal to make any amount of sense. Unlike a cat, eventually it might come around. Finding something interesting in a seemingly impermeable topic is definitely challenging, but it’s not impossible and when you really get in there and work it out it is pretty rewarding.
But, if you just can’t make heads or tails of it, I guess you could always go with Option 1… and, in conclusion, Merriam-Webster defines conclusion as “the end part of something.” (But I wouldn’t recommend it.)